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FCC chairman warns: The GOP’s net neutrality bill could jeopardize broadband’s ‘vast future’

Tom Wheeler, chairman of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC. Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg)

The head of the Federal Communications Commission doesn't like that Republicans want to take away his agency's powers to police Internet providers. And on Thursday, he said as much in a lengthy speech to reporters.

"You know I'm a huge Lincoln buff, and he had a great expression: 'The struggle of today is not altogether for today; it's for the vast future also,' " said FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler, implying that if the GOP restricts the commission's legal powers, the future of the Internet could be harmed.

Congress is considering a bill, backed by Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) and Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.), that would prevent Internet providers from speeding up or slowing down some Web sites over others — part of a bid to ensure the concept known as net neutrality. The legislation is being offered as a compromise with President Obama, who has asked for strong protections against Internet providers that want to prioritize some Web traffic.

But consumer advocates and Democrats are balking at the measure, because it contains controversial provisions that would curtail the FCC's power to redefine broadband as a service that can be regulated more heavily like traditional telephony. The bill also would make it impossible for the FCC to invoke another part of its charter, known as Section 706, which recognizes the agency's authority to promote the rollout of broadband.

Wheeler lashed out at those provisions Thursday.

"Obviously the Congress is the Congress," he said. "They can write whatever rules they want to write, and we respect that ability of theirs. But I think we're at a fork in the road. The question is: Whose Internet is it?

"It is important to deal with the long-term future of what the relationship of the American people will be with their broadband network that is so essential," Wheeler added. "We're not dealing with the kinds of issues [Lincoln] was dealing with, or the magnitude of issues he was dealing with at that point in time — but we are dealing with the vast future represented by broadband networks."

Wheeler punctuated his next remarks for dramatic effect.

"The. Most. Powerful. Network. In the history of mankind. Offering transformational opportunities we can't even imagine at this point in time. So the responsible question for an agency like us becomes: How are we going to make sure that in the broadband future, there are yardsticks in place to determine what is in the best interests of consumers, as opposed to what is in the best interest of gatekeepers?"